How Not to Suck: 3 Lessons in “Humaning” (that will improve your musical life)

Yet again, I’m interrupting the flow of things. I promise I’ve got one more stretch in my most recent series, Books You NEED to Start Your Music Studio (and a few you don’t).” My problem is I left town for a holiday weekend and forgot to bring the remaining two books with me for reference. It’s been a while since I’ve read them, and most everyone can see through a poorly executed post that contains a lot of generalized, useless statements. Every writer’s goal: provide complete waste? Not. I don’t want to be that writer, okay?

At the beginning of the weekend, the fact that I forgot my reading material was my biggest issue, which made me feel pretty good about life…

THEN a lot of stuff happened that I won’t get too into (famous last words) because it had nothing to do with my musical stuff, and everything to do with my husband’s job. A slew of unfortunate events occurred, the cumulative effect of nearly half a year’s worth of some pretty unsavory proceedings.  I can easily say that I have never experienced such relentless, soul-consuming, infuriating, ulcer-inducing, hellacious anger as I did this weekend. I’ve been irate in the past, but not enough to want to act on it, and this weekend I seriously contemplated slathering myself with the ebola virus on purpose (knowing full well that would likely result in the DEATH of myself) and then “accidentally” sneezing on some very specific people. I even considered collecting an arsenal of my dachshunds’ feces (and they poop a lot) so I could bag it all up, set it aflame, and hire some black-masked kids to go to town on some people’s porches. I came so close executing this that I was actually google-stalking people’s addresses before grabbing the wheel of sanity back from my emotions. Whoa, slow down there, inexcusable anger! Downboy.

I spent the better part of Saturday suppressing the steam from my ears and taking ohm breaths before experiencing the type of physical exhaustion that can only be equated to the post-first-day-of-school, post-concert, or post-Insantiy-workout type of tired. I even cried, which I do not do often. The adrenaline had dissipated and I realized I had forgotten how draining it is to output that type of negative energy. NOT my preferred M.O.

My parents, who closely witnessed the whole ordeal, handled it all as parents should, tiptoeing around the issue when necessary, willfully supporting both my husband and me through it all, and finding the funny. My mom wittily pointed out that I could now successfully have children, and not because I knew about the birds and the bees, but because I was clearly capable of “mom anger,” the type of rage you only experience when people mess with someone you love. If that’s what mom anger is, I will gladly wait a few more years to have children, because I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to stomach that on a regular basis.

All this got me thinking about the nature of my work as a musician. I wondered why I experience significantly less anger and stress in my music-making than my husband does in his profession, which recently had him navigating some pretty sleazy, hypocritical business dealings. I think it’s safe to say that most people would not describe me as an angry person. Sarcastic and cynical, maybe, but 99.9% of the time, I’m zen. Like the tea. I’m pretty sure I can attribute my general serenity to my willful acknowledgement of the fact that most people just suck, and I tend to only associate myself with people and situations that don’t suck

Some people don’t know how to be humans. I’m not saying I’m the Messiah or anything, but I follow a few basic rules when it comes to dealing with other people in my musical goings-on, with the expectation that whoever I give my time to will reciprocate. If they don’t, you are the weakest link, uh-bye-bye. The door to Robin’s Trust Club is now closed, and you’ll need a crowbar and a secret handshake to get back in. My Policies in Basic Humaning are pretty simple, and help me to be an all-around better teacher, musician, composer, and performer. Here they are:

Lesson 1: Be Honest. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Also not allowed: the following –
1. Lying (in all its forms – white, blatant, omissive)
2. Saying something and then doing the complete opposite. That’s lying in a ghost costume.
3. Telling people what you think they want to hear because you want them to like you, all the while not really believing yourself and whatever it is you’re saying
4. Flakiness. Saying you’ll do something with every intention of not doing it. That’s the same as number 2, except that you willingly admit you are lying to yourself.

….It’s all the same. Just be a genuine, sincere human, already, and don’t lie. Jeez.

Some Examples: when people ask for makeup lessons, I say, “I’m sorry, but that probably won’t happen, and here’s why.” When I get asked to take gigs and turn them down, I am completely honest with the reasons, if they ask (and sometimes even if they don’t). If a job pays too little or the time commitment is not worth it to me, I tell it like it is.  When I say I’m going to pay someone / give a lesson credit / take on a new student, I do it. If I have no intention of actually taking on that measly-paying musical directing gig, I don’t. It’s pretty simple – just don’t lie. It takes balls to do this, and has gotten me onto some people’s shit lists because I prefer not to play that game. I guess that makes me the proud owner of a pair (and I get this personality trait from my father, undoubtedly). In the end, though, it’s better for everyone. I try not to lead people on, because giving people false hope is rude. 

I recently turned down a long-term maternity leave music teaching position for a friend of mine, which was really hard to do. She told me I was one of very few people she trusted to take over without running her music program into the ground….lolz. Ah, to be trusted so. It’s a priceless feeling, and I felt unworthy of it, especially as she has recently put up with some relatively significant learning curves of mine in the contractual performing realm. I turned the gig down because it was going to interfere too much with my private teaching (and I did try to weigh all possibilities before deciding), but I made sure to tell her it was not because of the pay, which was abovedecent, or the students, who are more than likely listener-angels (it is a private school, after all). She found another replacement and I’m sure she was grateful for the honesty.

Lesson 2: Respect People’s Time. Don’t assume that your time is worth more than anyone else’s. The end.
Some Examples: I use a lot of volunteer musicians, especially in church, but the tradeoff is I never expect them to always be present, attend every rehearsal, donate excessive time, or do more than they are willing. Sometimes I have to draw boundaries, like “we’re presenting this cantata in 4 weeks, so in order to not sound like cats in heat, I need everyone who’s planning on performing to get it together and be here for all rehearsals.” The response is usually instant mutual respect.  I am also rarely late to anything, and sometimes that makes me socially awkward, but I don’t really care. That might be a whole ‘nother blog for a rainy day, but suffice it to say that when someone decides that x-o-clock is the time they want to start a rehearsal, lesson, dinner party, whatever, then they have deemed that time, their time, as the time to accomplish something, and showing up on time is respecting that. There’s weird little roads that sprout out from this issue that I’ll explore another day in another post.

I recently directed a pit of volunteer musicians for a musical. We had one two-hour rehearsal together before tech week. Did we get through all the music? No (although, I did try with all my might to be efficient). Did I ask them to stay past the two-hour mark? Hell No. They responded by giving more time and attending the rehearsals that I offered, but did not require. I acknowledged that they took the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the music and better themselves as musicians, and they appreciated that I didn’t go nazi on them with a wildly inaccessible rehearsal schedule. Have I had rehearsals go over time in the past? Yes. In those instances, I always say “we’re going over time, if you can stay, we should be done in fifteen minutes, and if you can’t, I understand, and thank you for what you’ve given.” It’s a simple formula, and it always works. Respect. People’s. Time.

Lesson 3: Be grateful – and prove it. We all know the old adage “actions speak louder than words.” If you truly value something or someone, prove it. I believe in this like I believe in deodorant. It just needs to happen. If it doesn’t, people get offended, assume you don’t care about them, and everything starts to fall to shit. True story, no?

Some Examples: here’s some top-of-the-head stuff I’ve done recently to prove my gratefulness to music-related people and dealings in my life. Does this make me perfect/God/worthy of praise and wonder? Ah, yes :::hair flip::: I am wonder woman. Actually, no. That would defeat the purpose. Should other people prove their words with their actions? Yes. Food for thought:

  • I bought coffee and pizza for my volunteer pit musicians on opening night. My way of saying “hey, I wish I could pay you enough to pay off all your debts, but I can’t, so thanks for playing these satanic rhythms.”
  • I hand-write thank-you cards to involved parties of concerts and recitals (like ushers, box office volunteers, venue owners, etc). If they’re like me, they’ll throw it away immediately, or hang it up on the fridge for two months and then throw it away, but will always remember how you made them feel when they got a hand-written thank-you note for volunteering their time.
  • Another story about thank-you-notes: I once spent literally two. hours. hand-signing nearly 500 Christmas cards for season sponsors of a concert series on which I serve as board member. Was it worth it in the end? Hard to say. It’s nice to know when people appreciate my money. I know the utility company doesn’t do that. They just send me shitty invoices. Merry Christmas, indeed.
  • I brought some flowers to my hairdresser because I was using a gift card I had purchased at an auction for a music series. She’s a fine supporter of the arts and had donated generously to the chamber music cause. I know that she runs a tight ship, appreciates beauty, and would have liked having something nice in her salon. She chopped off ten inches of my hair, which I donated to Locks for Love, and I left a tip after she begged me not to.
  • I forgot to invoice a student for August, a month in which only one lesson went down. Double invoices can be hellaciously burdensome, financially speaking, so I immediately apologized for the oversight and offered to work with her on payment, accept installments, etc. She thanked me for the concern and paid me in full without issue.

What are your rules for humaning? How do they affect your ability to teach/compose/perform/direct/not hate people or suck at life? Do share.

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